Evolving from an Expert for Hire to a Trusted Client Advisor

This article was originally published in June 2015 and was written by Andrew Sobel. Click here to read the full article.


There is a paradox or dilemma in becoming a trusted client advisor. On the one hand, you must develop a deep expertise in order to build your brand, attract clients, and do great work on specific issues. On the other hand, you have to be more than just an expert to your clients, because expertise is a commodity. Many search consultants can find and present candidates, for example. But what separates out the truly great search consultant from the average one, at least in the eyes of clients?

What I have found is that you need to shed the expert mindset because it will hold you back. When it comes to developing long-term relationships, it can be your greatest enemy. You see, clients hire experts, but they keep advisors.

Here’s what I mean.

Harry Truman, who was president of the United States after Franklin Roosevelt, once said, “An expert is a fellow who’s afraid to learn anything new, because then he wouldn’t be an expert anymore”—which gets at the notion that when we’re experts we want to stay within our narrow expertise at all times.

Shunryu Suzucki was a famous Zen teacher who came to the United States from Japan in the late 1950s. He wrote a book called “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind” in which he says: “In the beginners mind there are many possibilities, but in the experts there are few.”

In other words, when we have the expert mindset we can become narrow and closed-minded in our outlook. We see limitations, not possibilities. We are risk averse. When we have the advisor mindset, however, we provide clients with an expansive outlook on their problems. Let me contrast these two mindsets by comparing experts with advisors. 

Experts tell—after all, as an expert you have important knowledge that must be communicated. In contrast, advisors ask great questions and listen. The great artist Picasso once said: “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” Management sage Peter Drucker once said he was no longer a consultant but rather an “insultant,” a distinction reflecting the difficult, provocative questions he asks his clients. As professionals, we are trained to provide answers, but in many important respects, thought-provoking questions that help clients reframe their issues are more useful.

Experts are for hire to the highest bidder. Advisors have selfless independence. They are devoted to their clients but they balance that with objectivity and the willingness to say “no.” To be an influential advisor to your clients, you must look after their interests but also offer independent views, even if they are opposed to beliefs your clients hold dearly.

When you have the expert mindset, you think of yourself as a narrow specialist, whereas advisors are deep generalists. A deep generalist has a core specialty—a deep expertise—but they complement this depth with breadth—with more general knowledge about business and management and the broader context in which the client operates. Even if you have a highly specialized area of practice, you still need to have a breadth of knowledge around your expertise so that you can contextualize your advice and avoid myopia.  Advisors focus on learning in three different arenas.  First, they continually refine and improve their knowledge of their core specialty; second, they become deeply knowledgeable about their clients and the “ecosystem” that surrounds them; third, they eagerly engage in broad-based “personal learning” that could include studying a foreign language, collecting antique clocks, repairing cars, or playing a musical instrument.

Experts have professional credibility, advisors build deep personal trust. There’s a difference. Credibility creates respect for your knowledge. Clients believe that your data is accurate and your information useful. But when clients trust you on a personal level, they know you will always come through for them. Trust, which is the glue that holds together every long-term client relationship, is much deeper than credibility. It’s a client’s belief that you will act in their best interests and personally uphold the highest standards of integrity and competency, both inside and outside the office. When a client trusts you, anything is possible—your recommendations carry more weight, and when you propose an additional sale, your client sees sincerity, not salesmanship.

Experts analyze, advisors synthesize. Experts tear a problem down into its constituent parts and analyze each one. Advisors are also good at analysis, but more importantly, they synthesize—they help clients see the big picture. To some extent, good analysis is a commodity, but good big picture thinking is much rarer and it’s treasured by clients. Our educational system emphasizes good analysis—breaking down a problem into pieces and analyzing each bit separately. Synthesis, in contrast, is big-picture thinking—finding patterns, identifying key issues, framing ideas in a way that clarifies them, and creating new ideas out of old data. Synthesis provides the new perspectives that clients are always looking for.

Experts also tend to be reactive. They wait for the call. And if they are proactive, it’s all about selling their particular solution. A common complaint that clients make to me is that their external service providers do not sufficiently connect to their agenda of critical priorities. Whatever work you are doing for a client, no matter how technical or specialized, you must always relate it to your client’s broader agenda of three to five major priorities or goals. So advisors are proactive—they are agenda setters who seek to understand, shed light on, and improve their clients’ most important goals. 

This distinction is not academic. It has very practical implications. For example, when you have the expert mindset, you are only comfortable holding a client meeting when you have a specific idea to propose or something to deliver to the client. Advisors, in contrast, lower their threshold for a client meeting and end up with more face time with their clients. They know that they can go and have a great conversation with their client by talking about what they are seeing in the marketplace and asking some thoughtful questions about the client’s evolving priorities.

Here are six immediate things you can start doing—or do more of—that will put you more firmly in the client advisor, versus expert for hire, role:

1.      Thoroughly explore and understand your client’s priorities and goals before you accept an engagement.

2.      Spend time preparing more thoughtful questions for your client meetings.

3.      Stop bringing so much paper to meetings. Try using a short, half-page outline to guide a client discussion, rather than lots of slides or charts.

4.      Get to know your clients as people. Try to understand where they come from, what their values are, and how they like to make decisions.

5.      Don’t say, “My client knows what I do and will call when he has a need.” Be proactive and regularly go to see him with ideas and suggestions.

6.      Add value between searches. This is the most important thing you can do, as an executive search consultant, to generate more leads and be seen as a trusted advisor.  


This article was originally published in June 2015 and was written by Andrew Sobel. Click here to read the full article.